The Rat Pack

When rat poison manufacturers complained about regulations, the EPA rolled over.

In 2003, a 46-year-old man was admitted to a U.S. hospital after exhibiting a variety of symptoms. At first, doctors thought the man -- whose name and city were withheld in records kept by the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) -- was suffering from a kidney stone, and the hospital admitted him for observation. But the patient’s condition deteriorated rapidly. He started bleeding internally, with massive hemorrhaging inside his skull. Just two days after arriving at the hospital, he was dead. After his death, doctors found in his body a high concentration of brodifacoum, a widely used rat poison.

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The grotesque death was not unique: Between 2001 and 2003, the AAPCC reported nearly 60,000 cases nationwide of poisonings by rodenticides, more than for any other pesticide. Roughly 250 of those exposures each year resulted in serious outcomes, including deaths. And the deaths were horrific: Rat poisons kill by anticoagulation -- they disrupt normal clotting until blood vessels in effect explode.

Many of these incidents involve children because the poisons often come in the form of pellets that are placed as bait on the floor. “Kids will put everything into their mouths,” says Dr. Alan H. Lockwood, a professor of neurology at the University at Buffalo and an expert on pesticides. “These agents are very dangerous.” And they’re available over the counter to anyone. Not surprisingly, many poison experts, national medical groups, and consumer advocacy organizations believe rat poisons should be regulated -- with, for instance, the most powerful poisons restricted solely to industrial users. Aaron Colangelo, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), points out that tighter regulations would most benefit poor children. “It’s a demographic issue, too,” he says. “Statistics show [rat poison] is more of a risk for kids living below the poverty line, because there are more rats in these communities, and public housing managers are more careless with the poisons.”

Nevertheless, the Environmental Protection Agency has done little to prevent these disasters. In fact, over the past four years the EPA has allowed the agricultural services and products industry -- which, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has contributed nearly $15 million to GOP candidates since 2000 -- to crush any chance at regulation.

Once upon a time, the EPA evidently had good intentions. In the late 1990s, the agency began requiring rodenticide manufacturers to add a bitter taste to their poisons. It also required the use of dyes, which would stain the hands and mouths of kids, alerting their parents that they’d gotten into something unusual. Meanwhile, the agency’s career scientists began preparing a full assessment of the dangers, which was completed in September 2001. In keeping with standard procedure, the report was to be made available to the pesticide industry and the public for up to 90 days, allowing interested parties to review it. The document, which said rat poisons were toxic to “nontarget species” -- that is, humans and other animals -- presented strong evidence for limiting the sale of some of the chemicals to licensed users.

But in a departure from normal procedures, the EPA held the comment process open for more than a year. During this period, it allowed the pesticide industry, organized in a coalition called the Rodenticide Registrants Task Force (RRTF), to go well beyond making the usual technical corrections. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act bear this out. In one, an email sent by an EPA employee confirms that the agency went through the assessment to ensure “no words/phrases etc that could evoke emotion on the part of the RRTF” were included. (“EPA career guys were being told they had to cooperate with industry,” says one source in a wildlife organization who has closely followed the assessment.) A second email says the EPA replaced provocative terms with benign ones. “I am still making a few changes,” a staffer writes, “i.e., where appropriate, the word ‘poisoning’ to ‘treated’ or ‘dosed.’” Finally, in a longer document on its own letterhead, the RRTF took the EPA assessment, line by line, and crossed out words and phrases offensive to industry. And while the EPA was meeting repeatedly with the RRTF at this time, it continually turned down requests from environmental groups and consumer advocates to discuss the assessment. “When we asked for meetings, we got nothing,” says Patti Bright, vice president for pesticide programs at the American Bird Conservancy.

Ultimately, in September 2004, the EPA released a revised assessment of the rat poisons, asserting that the chemicals’ effects are not fully understood and recommending “further evaluation.” By this time, the agency had also backed away from requiring that manufacturers add a bitter taste and an indicator dye to rat poisons. Why? In part because consumers would have to contend with “inevitable property damage” from dye stains, and in part because nobody had tested the efficacy of the ideas; testing would cost money. Plus, the EPA worried, how would you distinguish “between stains on a child from food products and stains from indicator dyes”?

But apparently, even the weaker EPA assessment was unacceptable to the rodenticide task force. Instead, the organization issued yet another industry-friendly study on the effects of rat poisons. Drafts of this new RRTF study circulated within the EPA, but environmental groups and consumer advocates were prevented from seeing it. When Bright asked for a copy, she was told it contained “confidential business information.”